Bilby numbers boosted

By Anna O'Brien 22 October 2010
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A five-year program to boost bilby numbers in Queensland has been a huge success.

A PROJECT IN SOUTH-EAST Queensland has successfully increased bilby population numbers, scientists report.  Currawinya National Park is the only site in the state where bilbies have been reintroduced to the wild. The five-year project involved the release of four bilbies into a 29 sq. km predator-proof enclosure.

Field scientist Peter McRae, who led the bilby (Macrotis lagotis) tracking, has confirmed the population in the park has grown to more than 50 individuals. This population now makes up almost 10 per cent of the entire world population.  “At first, our biggest concern was whether these animals were surviving, but spotlight searches have proved that the population has grown tenfold,” he says. 

The work involved spotlight searches where scientists drove around tracks in the park at night with a spotlight and counted the number of bilbies found, Peter says. “It’s the easiest way to track the population,” he adds.

Predator threat

Associate Professor Jean-Marc Hero, from Griffith University, and his team will further assist the study through research on how predators outside the enclosure influence the natural environment.

“The predator-proof fence presents a unique opportunity to understanding the bilby, its role in the environment and how these predators interact with them,” he says. “Our aim is to collect information which will eventually end up in an international ecological database called the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER).”

Frank Manthey, who, along with Peter, is the joint head of the Save the Bilby Fund, blames the introduction of cats and foxes as one of the greatest contributing factor to the decline of the bilby.  “In the early days for sport we brought in the European red fox – one of Australia’s biggest ecological disasters,” he says. “As a result, foxes and cats have knocked them for six over the last 60 years.”

Averil Bones, biodiversity policy manager at WWF Australia agrees that humans are to blame. “Internationally, Australia has the dubious honour of having the world’s highest rate of mammal extinction. Even today we continue to lose species that are totally unique, for example the lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura) which has not been seen since 1931,” she says.

Dreaming of a bilby world

The research in Currawinya National Park has been funded by Griffith University’s Environmental Futures Centre, the Queensland State Government, Gold Coast amusement park Dreamworld and the Save the Bilby Fund.

“When approached by the bilby brothers, Frank Manthey and Peter McRae, to help fund the projects at Currawinga National Park, Dreamworld jumped at the opportunity,” says Al Mucci, general manager of life sciences at the theme park. “Dreamworld has an established captive breeding program as part of our Australian Wildlife Experience. We need to educate the public on the plight of the bilbies and continue and develop our approach to ensure vulnerable species are conserved.”

Frank is confident that with continuing funding, the bilbies will further recover. “We need to do a lot of work with our feral animal control and when this occurs Australia’s bilby population will grow significantly,” he says.

Carnivorous bilby fossil found

Save The Bilby Fund
WWF bilby fact sheet